Attending a lecture last week on the politics of gender, I turned to a friend and said, “You and I were pessimists before we heard that. How are you feeling now?” To which he replied, “It’s enough to make me take up drinking again.” Some of us, I returned, had never been optimistic enough to stop.
Bad as it is, the madness that is currently the only politically acceptable approach to gender is surely doomed. Or at least, it must stop at some point, if society is to survive. For it cannot offer a socially workable understanding of personhood.
Sound hyperbolic? Well, take a hypothetical scenario. In 1995, a man called David Jones commits a murder, but there is insufficient evidence to take him to trial and the case goes cold. In 2005 David Jones has gender reassignment—sorry, “confirmation”—surgery that turns him into her, David into Desiree. In 2017, evidence emerges that David Jones did commit the 1995 crime.
But did Desiree commit the crime? David Jones pulled the trigger, and he no longer exists. Indeed, to speak as if he did exist will certainly enrage the right-on Twitterati and possibly land you a fine for discrimination. So how can Desiree be held to account for what David did? And would the police be vulnerable to hate crime charges if they tried to arrest her? She no longer identifies as David, she identifies as Desiree. And in the land of the self-identifying, solipsistic psychology is king and self-chosen names determine personal essences.
I suspect that the law courts would not accept such a defense. They would prosecute, even if Desiree ends up doing a hard stretch in a women’s prison (to the extent that “woman” is still a coherent concept). But on what philosophical grounds could they mount such a legal case? Surely it would have to be on the basis that the same person committed the murder who now claims to be the woman called Desiree.
That is where the problem is obvious. Such a prosecution would be predicated on an essentialist understanding of personal identity as logically prior to self-selected identity. The New York laws on pronouns, however, seem rather nominalist in their metaphysics. They require that the body is a mere collection of accidents. It is one’s psychological convictions that provide the substance of personhood and thus the identity of the agent. You are your name and your preferred gender pronouns. And it is illegal for anyone to claim otherwise.
I doubt that any transgender advocate wants to provide serial killers with a foolproof legal defense, but it is hard to see how they could do otherwise without contradicting their own ideological convictions about identity. If they concede that Desiree can be prosecuted for David’s crime, then that requires that gender not be seen as a fundamental defining characteristic of individual identity. If Desiree can be so prosecuted, then gender has no real legal significance for personal identity at all.
Transgenderism, rather like abortion, puts the law in a contradictory position on the nature of personhood in our contemporary world. Just as Scott Peterson can be charged with murdering the unborn baby his wife could legally have aborted, so Desiree could be charged with David’s crime. As long as a change in self-identification is no defense at law regarding pre-transition crimes, then civilization may survive—but only at the cost of contradicting itself. And if ever it does become a valid defense, then the rule of law will be at an end. There is a lesson there somewhere.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.